How do you develop a slum?

How do you develop a slum?

How do you develop a slum? In some places, such as Beijing, slums have been bulldozed, with allegations of human rights abuses. In others, children still play around open sewage. In others still, slum residents now can travel by cable car. This GeoIssues report investigates the problems and solutions facing governments and communities wanting to develop.

Land rights

The biggest barrier to slum communities empowering themselves is land rights: slums develop on land that residents do not own, even if that land is often marginal – swamps, rubbish dumps, alongside railway lines – and never originally owned. Slum-dwellers are more likely to invest in their property and land if they have ownership of it, but negotiating tenure is difficult and expensive.

Baan Mankong

However, in Thailand, this barrier was decisively overcome in what has been cited as the most effective slum redevelopment project, Baan Mankong. A female leader, Somsook Boonyabancha managed to upgrade 90,000 homes in over 300 Thai cities, whilst only spending US$570 per family of government money. She let communities empower themselves: the first step, was to give communities the right to directly negotiate land deals and tenures from the owner, culminating in long-term lease in 48.6% of cases. Next, money for the settlement upgrades was not individual, but shared: repayments were given to the community rather than individuals such that the community would have a collective interest to develop together, benefitting the poorest. This was achieved by setting up saving and credit groups, tapping into the collective power of so many people: community.

the KENSUP apartments vs. Kibera


Less successfully, the approach of aided self-help has also been tried to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. Roads have been tarred, and street lighting exists in some places, letting women go to literacy classes in the evenings; police stations and mobile clinics have been set up in shipping containers; sewers have been dug; some of the unemployed youth have been encouraged to set up business, rather than turning to drugs and alcohol. But the problems in Kibera illustrate the difficulties that urban planners meet in developing slums.

Firstly, it has brought into question whether developing slums is a sustainable process. One, often political, argument is that developing them simply encourages more rural-to-urban migration, leading to more undeveloped marginal slums. Secondly, Kibera reminds us that development must ask people what they need: a PhD researcher from Nairobi university found that the problem in Kibera wasn’t the availability of food as had been thought but the cost of cooking it on charcoal, leading residents to rely on street-food at higher prices. She developed briquettes made of charcoal dust, soil and water at much cheaper costs, leading to a cheap, sustainable solution 300 times cheaper than charcoal, which 70% of Kibera’s residents now use.

Real estate

Third is the issue that slums often sit at the heart of prime real estate in world megacities. When development arrives, and slum-dwellers are offered better accommodation, this accommodation become real estate which slum-dwellers use as capital. A program in Kibera, known as KENSUP, built in the first year 600 3-room apartments to rehouse families. Yet as soon as they had moved in, many families moved back to Kibera; they kept the apartment and rented it out to middle-class workers from the city. Within the slums, residents sublet their accommodation to poorer migrant communities, cramping living conditions even further. When land prices are suddenly inflated, they can also increase food prices, pushing people back even further.

In Mumbai, Dharavi sits on a ‘gold-mine’ of real estate: the government wants to bulldoze it to build a series of luxury skyscrapers, valued at billions, situated at the intersection between two main rail-lines. Current residents who can proof residency since 2000 will be resettled in tower blocks, but the issue of land rights will resurface because few residents have the documentation to prove their occupancy, despite generations living and working in Dharavi. Rehouisng is rarely the answer either, as traditional and informal industries centre on slums, without which re-housed people fall into more extreme poverty and depression.

teleféricos in Medellín (red line); La Paz (yellow line)

Social inclusion through transport

Already marginal settlements are further marginalised by bad transport links. This is particularly severe in Latin America, where settlements have expanded up mountainsides; economic opportunities in the central city are unreachable. Nowhere could these effects be seen more clearly that Medllín, in the 1990s a hotbed of drug cartels ruled by Pablo Escobar, with the highest homicide rate of 380 per 100,000 in its barrios.  Yet in 2016, it was awarded the prize for the most innovative city, kickstarted by improving its transportation.

Coming into operation in 2004, ostracised barrios were connected through a cable car system, known as ‘teleféricos’. In one study, a 66% decline was shown in the homicide rate in barrios serviced by the teleférico compared those without. Metrocable has integrated communities, and closed the social gap between the indigenous population forced into the outer reaches of the cities, and the mestizos, or mixed race European settlers. The scheme has since been rolled out to La Paz, Caracas, Curitiba, and Rio; key to its success has been the cheapness of the scheme, which cost only US$26 million to build the first line in 2004 in Medellín, and less than 30p for a return trip.

Community pride

In other Latin American favelas and barrios, cultivating a sense of pride in community is one of the most successful ways at redevelopment, with painted murals and street art giving optimism and pride to favelas, in Pachuca [picture below] in Mexico, Rio, and Jalousie in Haiti following its earthquake. Where government corruption has hindered progress in Rio, and police pacification units (UPPs) have failed – creating violence and marginalisation in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics – pride and cultural expression brings optimism to slum communities. Rocinha, the largest favela, even has its own TV channel, uniting the community; it is now a series a brick houses, contradicting the stereotypical view of rough shacks.


Social hierarchies and exclusion: Dharavi

Perhaps the largest injustice we can do to slums is to simply see them like this: as a homogenous mass of rusting iron shacks. Slums are hierarchal and complex, rather than homogenous. Dharavi, the 2nd largest slum in the world, has 85 neighbourhoods. The oldest, Kumbharwada, is a walled settlement policed by guards churning out beautiful clay pottery, terracotta lining paved courtyards free from sewage. On the edge of Dharavi, lies the old fishing quarter, Worli Koliwarda, with a serpentine market lined with fresh fish and brick houses. Rubbish, human excrement, and open sewage are common here, just like in hundreds of other slums, but it is a complex mosaic rather than a single squatting problem.

If we treat slums as single marginal areas we ignore the problem, and cannot understand their complexities. There are ways to develop slums sustainable, retaining their communal feel, but governments need to invest the time to understand their interactions and people if development is going to happen.

These images are all from Dharavi: slums are complex hierarchical places, not simply squalor and crime



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